As Tajikistan adopts ethical guidelines for the users of internet services and personal electronic devices, netizens fear that he authorities might use the document to control free expression.
Category Archives: Authoritarianism
Heated disputes over the allocation of energy and water have been the defining feature of relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over much of the last decade. Although the distrust between the two countries has deep historical roots, the present tensions revolve primarily around the Rogun Dam project. So far, both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have been unwilling to discuss solutions that would be acceptable to both countries. Yet, without a compromise over Rogun, it is highly unlikely that the strained relations between the two neighboring states will go back to normal. Is compromise over the dam project possible?
BACKGROUND: The most contentious feature of the Rogun Dam that Tajikistan has been building since 2006 is its height. The 335-meter giant was designed by Soviet engineers in the 1970s to overtake Norak – also on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan – as the world’s highest dam. In addition to reflecting the overall Soviet obsession with larger-than-needed engineering projects, the massive dam made sense from a purely utilitarian perspective. It was designed to create a huge reservoir that would irrigate over three million hectares of land in downstream countries, particularly in Uzbekistan, and enable multi-year water storage and regulation for regional irrigation purposes. It was also designed to increase hydroelectricity generation and enable the construction of major industrial enterprises in Tajikistan. Although the construction began in 1982, the break-up of the Soviet Union prevented the project from completion.
Emerging from a devastating civil war and facing recurrent power shortages in the 2000s, Tajikistan has sought to utilize its primary resource – an enormous potential for hydropower production – to develop into a prosperous state. The Rogun Dam scheme became the cornerstone of the Tajik government’s ambitious economic development program. The dam has been promoted as a shortcut to energy independence and economic growth. If the dam is completed, it will enable Tajikistan to generate about 13 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. This will not only help the country meet all of its domestic needs but will also make Tajikistan a net exporter of electricity. What experts in Dushanbe prefer not to mention is that the generation of this amount of electricity does not require a 335-meter high dam. By building the dam based on the original Soviet blueprint, Tajikistan seeks to be able to control the flow of the Vakhsh River, including for political purposes.
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On March 3, Internet providers in Tajikistan cut local access to Facebook, the social-networking service, along with another four independent news websites. The blocking was ordered by the state-run communications agency, which cited technical reasons. However, media and analysts suggested that the move reflected the authorities’ determination to limit the space for political expression at home and control the flow of uncensored information from outside (www.news.tj, March 3, 5).
The block on Facebook echoes measures taken by a number of other restrictive regimes, including China, Iran and Pakistan. Analyst Saimuddin Dustov blames the development in Tajikistan on Russian media outlets, which portray social networks as sources of unrest. Despite the limited Internet penetration in Tajikistan, Facebook’s popularity has recently been on the increase there. The platform has become an outlet for expressing frustration with the government. In addition, the Islamic Revival Party (IRPT), Tajikistan’s largest and most influential opposition group, as well as a number of opposition movements in exile have actively used Facebook to mobilize support. Local analyst Zafar Abdullayev believes that the authorities imposed a ban on the social network because they began seeing it as a source of political threat (www.news.tj, March 3, 13).
The other four websites that have been blocked are Russian-language news platforms. The article that appears to have triggered the blocking was published on a Russia-based website, Zvezda, on March 1. The article, entitled “Tajikistan on the Eve of a Revolution,” analyzes political and security dynamics in the country based on what it alleges are the minutes of Rahmon’s meeting with key government officials on November 24, 2011. A scanned copy of the minutes in Tajik, marked as secret and supposedly signed by the president, is also published, without any indication of how the document was obtained.
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Tajik authorities have apparently found a new way to discipline Islamic clerics daring to criticize state policies. The novel approach consists of mobilizing state-controlled Islamic leaders to discredit and penalize the dissidents. In December 2011, the nominally independent Council of Ulamo (CoU) accused three influential clerics, the Turajonzoda brothers, of performing “alien” Shia rituals at their mosque. This is a very serious claim given that most people in Tajikistan are Sunni Muslims. The CoU is a government-controlled body of clerics charged with regulating Islamic activities in the country.
The accusations against the Turajonzoda brothers were leveled in a public statement on December 6. The document alleged that the clerics had performed the Shia ritual of “Ashura” at the Muhammadiya Mosque. This mosque in the brothers’ native village of Turkobod, some 30 kilometers east of the Tajik capital Dushanbe, is considered one of the most prominent in the country. Friday prayers at the mosque commonly attracted between 15,000 and 20,000 people, with many worshippers coming to listen to the traditional Friday sermons. These sermons were consequently circulated on CDs and DVDs across the country and were available for download on a website that the authorities have blocked since May 2011. The oldest of the Turajonzoda brothers, Eshoni Nuriddin, frequently used the sermons to condemn government policies which purportedly restricted Islamic expression in the country. He was repeatedly rebuked by the authorities for these criticisms. In January 2011, Eshoni Nuriddin resigned as imam, ostensibly under pressure from the security agencies. He was replaced by the youngest brother, Muhammadjon.
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Prominent Tajik religious and political figure, Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, and his brothers, Nuriddin and Muhammadjon, have, in recent weeks, come under increasing pressure from the authorities. On December 6, 2011, the Council of Ulamo (CoU), a government-controlled body regulating Islamic activities in the country, accused the Turajonzoda brothers of observing the holiday of Ashura, which has a special significance for Shia Muslims. The holiday is not observed in Tajikistan where the majority of people are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi tradition.
The CoU’s statement alleged that on December 2, Nuriddin and Muhammadjon performed the Ashura ritual at the Muhammadiya Mosque. The mosque in the village of Turkobod, some 30 kilometers east of the Tajik capital Dushanbe, is one of the largest in the country. It belongs to the Turajonzoda family. Muhammadjon Turajonzoda served as the mosque’s imam after the elder brother, Nuriddin, had been forced by the authorities to resign in January 2011 (EDM, March 3, 2011).
“We are surprised that the ritual [of Ashura] was performed by members of the prominent religious family of Turajonzoda who claim to belong to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam,” the statement said, adding “This ritual is entirely in contradiction to the Hanafi tradition… [The] Turajonzoda brothers want to popularize an alien religious practice among our people… We must stay vigilant and protect our faith from various plots; we must not allow hypocritical individuals to endanger the spiritual unity of our nation…” The statement also implied that Turajonzoda brothers were responsible for political confrontation leading up to the civil war in Tajikistan in 1992-1997 (www.khovar.tj, December 9).
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